Bill C-51 will worsen racial profiling of Muslim Canadians

University of Ottawa study reveals disturbing stories of CSIS intrusion in Muslim communities
Photo: Jeremy Board

We are at a national security tipping point in Canada. The content and consequences of Bill C-51 have been the subject of scrutiny by legal experts, activists, civil liberties organizations and academics in recent weeks, culminating in the present series of Parliamentary Committee hearings on the bill.

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The debate is unfolding against the backdrop of criticism of the niqab, concerns about “oppressive” Muslim cultures and the notion that radicalization may be taking place in mosques in Canada. Prime Minister Harper has voiced all these concerns, conflating religious practice with radicalization and terrorism.

Muslim identity has effectively become the battleground for a broader discussion on Canadian national security. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, the impact the bill may have on Canadian Muslim communities has been notably absent from critical discussion.

Muslim community leaders are reporting that CSIS has on occasion forced Muslim refugee claimants to spy within their communities in order to be granted the right to stay in Canada.

It is not coincidental that discussions surrounding Islam, Muslim culture and the proclivities of the thoughts and dress of Muslims in Canada have been mobilized by politicians advocating for Bill C-51. For well over a decade, this kind of political coupling of Islam with terrorism has been strategically mobilized by politicians to justify new security laws.

Bill C-51 promises, among other things, to broaden surveillance against persons for non-criminal offences, criminalize certain kinds of expressions deemed to propagate terrorism, and enhance the internal sharing and blacklisting of targets across all government departments. This information may be used to conduct foreign investigations and actions by CSIS that are contrary to domestic and international law. The shadow of these looming security intelligence amendments forebode of a worsening of CSIS profiling activities against Muslim communities in Canada.

A culture of fear

Such profiling is not new. Dr. Patti Tamara Lenard and Dr. Baljit Nagra (one of the authors of this piece) from the University of Ottawa are currently conducting a nationwide study on how counterterrorism policies affect the experience of Muslims in Canada. Their research has recorded troubling techniques used by CSIS in investigations of Muslim communities over the last decade.

Muslim community leaders are reporting that CSIS has on occasion forced Muslim refugee claimants to spy within their communities in order to be granted the right to stay in Canada. According to these community leaders, during investigations CSIS agents have been known to disrupt Muslim families by doing late-night home visits and by interrogating people in front of their young children. These techniques are reportedly used not only on those who are deemed security threats, but also on those Muslim Canadians who happen to be actively involved within their communities and considered by CSIS to be only indirectly “persons of interest.”

While many Canadian Muslims and Muslim organizations will not publicly voice concerns about this legislative initiative, their silence should not be mistaken for acquiescence.

Some imams (Muslim religious clergy) feel that dealing with CSIS has become one of their routine responsibilities. Unlike their non-Muslim counterparts, many young Muslims (teenagers and younger) know what CSIS is and fear it. Not surprisingly, CSIS practices have had profound consequences upon Canadian Muslim communities.

There is now a prevailing culture of fear under which many Muslim Canadians feel that they can be (or are being) profiled, falsely accused or labelled as terrorists. There are concerns about cameras being placed outside mosques and Friday sermons being constantly monitored. Muslim community leaders also report that CSIS recruits Muslims to spy within the community, causing internal distrust and conflict. Some Muslims have stopped attending mosques out of fear that they may be unfairly targeted by CSIS. One imam interviewed for the University of Ottawa study was even contemplating leaving his position to avoid further dealings with CSIS.

In need of protection from C-51

Moreover, many Muslim Canadians and Muslim organizations are fearful that being politically vocal against Canadian government policies (such as Bill C-51) may register them on the radar of CSIS. Preliminary findings from the study illustrate how current practices employed by CSIS compromise the religious and political freedom of Muslim Canadians, signalling the dangers that will flow from Bill C-51’s expansion of powers for CSIS.

March 14 was declared a national day of action against C-51 within a growing movement of public opposition that has been endorsed by over 100,000 Canadians in a Leadnow petition. While many Canadian Muslims and Muslim organizations will not publicly voice concerns about this legislative initiative, their silence should not be mistaken for acquiescence. For those in a position to speak out against the bill, however, silence risks becoming complicity.

Democracy demands that the rights of all religious communities receive protection and equal treatment. The lessons and stories from Muslim communities tell us that they need such protection from the pernicious effects of C-51 and the ever-lengthening reach of the long arm of CSIS. Bill C-51 may be passed imminently, but we have a choice as to what side of history we wish to stand on.

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